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Definition: Iguaçu Falls from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Waterfall in South America, on the border between Brazil and Argentina. The falls have a width of 4 km/2.5 mi, and lie 19 km/12 mi above the junction of the River Iguaçu with the Paraná. The falls are divided by forested rocky islands and form a spectacular tourist attraction. The water plunges in a series of 275 falls, which vary in height between 60 m/200 ft and 82 m/269 ft; many of these falls have separate names.

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Iguaçu Falls – Great Water

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Iguaçu Falls


Summary Article: Iguaçu Falls (Foz de Iguaçu) from Brazil Today: An Encyclopedia of Life in the Republic

Meaning “big water” in the language of the Guaraní, Iguaçu Falls (Foz de Iguaçu) is one of the world's largest waterfalls and is located on the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. While there is one main waterfall, the entire Iguaçu system has around 275 falls. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization validated the area's uniqueness by officially proclaiming the falls a World Heritage Site in 1984. This stunning environmental spectacle consequently became one of Brazil's primary tourist attractions in the 20th century. Finally, because Iguaçu Falls is also located near the border of Paraguay, the area has grown rapidly in the past 40 years based on regional commerce and developed an extremely diverse culture matching its distinct location.

In terms of size, only Victoria Falls, located on the boundary of Zambia and Zimbabwe, rivals the size of Iguaçu Falls. Unlike Victoria Falls and Niagara Falls, Iguaçu Falls has numerous smaller falls, all fed by the Iguaçu River. But the most well-known, largest, and spectacular of the falls is the Garganta do Diabo (Devil's Throat). The falls is U-shaped, measuring 150 meters across and 700 meters from top to bottom. Most of the falls can be found on the Argentine side of the border, and the majority of water from Iguaçu flows into the Paraná River. The water surface area of Iguaçu is approximately 400,000 square meters compared to 183,000 square meters for Niagara Falls in the United States

A Spanish conquistador, Alva Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, discovered the falls in 1541, but neither the Portuguese nor the Spanish colonial administrations did much with the falls. Until 1860, few people lived in the area. However, the area received renewed attention when Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay went to war with Paraguay in 1864. This conflict, called the War of the Triple Alliance, ended with the complete defeat of Paraguay, which up to that point had been one of the more economically developed countries in South America. At this time, Brazil and Argentina split control of the falls, with Argentina taking the southern half and Brazil taking the north.

Neither country spent much time colonizing the territory. Still, after the war, a small colony near the falls, which began to be called Cataratas do Iguaçu, began to develop around 1914. This outpost lies approximately where the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. The falls received attention from the federal government in 1916 when Alberto Santos-Dumont, a pioneer in Brazil's aviation history, visited the area and recommended its preservation. The state began taking over the land in the region in 1917 and officially established the Iguaçu National Park in 1939. However, the city's population remained small—only 9,753 people lived there in 1960. By constructing major roads, the federal government helped transform the region in the 1960s. The Friendship Bridge, completed in 1965, connected Paraguay and Brazil and facilitated international commerce. Another major road, BR 277, connected the Cataratas do Iguaçu with Curitiba, the main city in the region, as well as the coast. Better roads, along with the general increase in international travel, helped develop the area into a major tourist attraction for nationals and foreigners.

Iguaçu Falls lie on the borders of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. The falls are one of Brazil's primary tourist attractions. (Corel)

The area further developed in the 1970s with the construction of the Itaipu Dam, just six miles north of Iguaçu Falls but located on the border between Brazil and Paraguay along the Paraná River. The project began because of international events. In 1973, Middle Eastern countries cut off oil supplies to the United States and its allies to protest the U.S. support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The embargo caused a rapid rise in the inflation rate that caused economic problems throughout the world, in developing and developed countries alike. Responding to the crisis, Brazil's military dictatorship (1964–1985) at the time explored new energy policies. The military pushed conservation plans and also funded alternative forms of energy. Brazil, for instance, signed its first contracts with German firms to build nuclear power plants. More innovatively, Brazil pioneered the conversion of sugarcane into a fuel called ethanol. But the construction of dams and hydroelectric plants has had the largest impact on the reduction of Brazil's dependence on foreign oil.

Managed by Brazil and Paraguay, the Itaipu Dam, the largest hydroelectric project in the world, provides Brazil with nearly 25 percent of its power and supplies Paraguay with over 90 percent of its energy needs. This project began in 1975 during the middle of the military dictatorship. The first generator at the dam went online in 1984. However, the dam has generated controversy because these hydroelectric projects often disrupt the environment. In addition, the dam's development dislocated thousands of people living on the Paraná River.

Despite these problems, Brazil's growing economy revived the tourism industry in the region. Iguaçu once again saw an increase in tourism, and consequently the local economy has begun to revive. For instance, on the Brazilian side, 610,000 people visited the area in 2002, but the number increased to 980,000 in 2005. In addition, the area boasts Bird Park, a large privately owned zoological garden that has become a popular tourist destination. Environmental experts now worry about climate change affecting the falls because in 2006 a particularly acute drought greatly decreased the water flow into the falls. The rain levels returned to normal in 2007, but the drastic change helped spark a new round of discussions within the federal government on balancing economic growth and environmental protection.

See also Environmental Movement; Hydroelectric Power.

Suggested Reading
  • “Exotica: Iguazu Falls—Cascades So Overwhelmingly Grand They Form the Core of Two National Parks—in Two Countries.” National Geographic Traveler 15, no. 3 (1998): 112.
  • Crites, Byron
    Copyright 2012 by John J. Crocitti and Monique M. Vallance

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